In this March 15, 2012 photo, musicians Will Johnson, left, and Yim Yames of the group "New Multitudes" pose for a portrait  in New York. The
In this March 15, 2012 photo, musicians Will Johnson, left, and Yim Yames of the group "New Multitudes" pose for a portrait in New York. The group, which also includes Jay Farrar and Anders Parker, honors Woody Guthrie with new music based on his unfinished works. (AP Photo/Carlo Allegri) (Carlo Allegri)

CHICAGO- Decades ago, Woody Guthrie wrote the sparse lyrics for a song he never got around to recording, "New Multitudes," a plea to future generations to stay the course: "Give me my new multitudes/ Gonna build my world over/ Gotta have new multitudes."

His words have been heard. "New Multitudes" (Rounder) is the title of a new album of Guthrie lyrics set to music by a handful of contemporary artists, including Son Volt's Jay Farrar, My Morning Jacket's Yim Yames (aka Jim James), Centro-Matic's Will Johnson and Anders Parker. Farrar turns the title song into an atmospheric mantra, a prayer not just for the future but for right now.

Occupy Wall Street. The Arab Spring. An economic slump that lingers like a toothache. Is it any wonder that the music of Woody Guthrie, born 100 years ago July 14, has stuck around?

Guthrie died in 1967, leaving behind thousands of songs, fragments and journal entries that have never really gone out of style. They continue to resonate, as the latest surge of Guthrie-inspired music-making affirms:

At the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, a few weeks ago, Bruce Springsteen framed the concert that kicked off his E Street Band world tour with Guthrie songs. Springsteen's latest album, "Wrecking Ball" (Columbia), is essentially an electric folk album, inspired by the Guthrie who saw and wrote about two visions of America: one defined by inclusion, and another divided along lines of class, race and economics.

This month, Nonesuch Records will release "Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions," a box-set of the 1997-98 recording sessions in Chicago and Dublin in which Billy Bragg and Wilco created music for Guthrie lyrics. The two "Mermaid Avenue" albums (released in 1998 and 2000) sparked renewed interest in Guthrie's life and music, and the box will include 17 previously unreleased tracks.

In the "Mermaid Avenue" tradition, "New Multitudes" arrives as the first of a projected two volumes of new recordings built on archived Guthrie lyrics. The Farrar-James-Johnson-Parker New Multitudes group is also scheduled to appear July 28-29 at the Newport Folk Festival, along with members of Guthrie's extended family and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello in his Guthrie-esque Nightwatchman guise.

Morello will headline "This Land is our Land!," a concert May 19 in Chicago celebrating Guthrie's music. He'll be joined Jon Langford, Holly Near, the Klezmatics, Toshi Reagon, Son del Viento, Bucky Halker and Kevin Coval.

Guthrie's son, Arlo Guthrie, will stage a centennial tribute concert to his father Aug. 19 at Ravinia with Mary Chapin Carpenter.

That legacy underlines not only Springsteen's "Wrecking Ball," but a number of songs from the Wilco-Bragg "Mermaid Avenue" sessions. One of the previously unreleased tracks from the "Mermaid" box is "Jolly Bankers," about a greedy lender, which Wilco transforms into a country waltz with a deceptively breezy air: "When your car you're losin', and sadly your cruisin'/ I'm a jolly banker, jolly banker am I/ I'll come and foreclose, get your car and your clothes/ Singin' I'm jolly banker, jolly banker am I."

Many of Guthrie's songs had an upward sweep to them, a we're-all-in-this-together sense of community. But he also injected a personal complexity that went beyond the black-and-white choices presented in countless protest anthems by lesser artists.

"Lots of songs I make up when I'm laughing and celebrating make folks cry and songs I make up when I'm feeling down and out make people laugh," Guthrie once wrote. "Those two upside down feelings (have) got to be in any song to make it take a hold and last."

His songs had backbone, a righteous, moral foundation. But there was ambiguity and intimacy too. It was that vibe that attracted Wilco and Bragg to Guthrie's music.

"I'm not into Woody the icon," Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy said at the time. "I'm into Woody the freak weirdo."

Bragg and Wilco dug up songs that showed the full range of Guthrie's interests: children's songs ("Hoodoo Voodoo"), mortality ("One by One," "Remember the Mountain Bed"), lusty fantasy ("Ingrid Bergman"), surrealism ("Someday Some Morning Sometime"), a painterly portrait of "California Stars."

Taken together, you've got multitudes-not a herd, but a vast collection of individuals. Guthrie's Everyman songs tried to make room for them all.

At a South by Southwest panel, Arlo Guthrie explained why his father's music endures: "Everybody in this room has a little voice they count on that they recognize as being them. My father recognized that voice in him and reflected it back on you so you recognize something that rings true to you. I don't think we're actually celebrating Woody-we're celebrating us. That's the genius of the man."


Greg Kot:


(c)2012 the Chicago Tribune

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